Furor Over Pensions, Budget Intensifies As Session Wanes

Apr 12, 2018

The war of words between Gov. Matt Bevin and the statewide professional association representing teachers is escalating as the legislative session nears its end. Meanwhile, educators and their allies continued staging walk-in protests Thursday ahead of a planned demonstration at the Capitol while rallies sprang up at public universities.

"Teach them a lesson!" a scattered group of about 50 students and teachers shouted, as sympathetic drivers honked their horns along Avenue of Champions near Bowman's Den. Nearby, the wildcat statue facing Memorial Coliseum wore a red scarf, the color donned by education advocates.

The gathering was one of many shows of solidarity popping up across the commonwealth as the GOP-led House and Senate prepare to tackle Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's wholesale vetoes of the two-year state budget and a tax overhaul. The governor signed Senate Bill 151 this week, officially sending future teacher hires in a hybrid cash-balance retirement plan, which combines elements of defined benefit and defined contribution packages. The move has drawn sharp criticism from the Kentucky Education Association and a lawsuit spearheaded by the state's Democratic attorney general.

But Thursday saw activists at public universities, slated for 6.25 percent budget cuts in the vetoed biennial budget, joining the fray. The reduction would be partially cushioned by a $31 million increase in the outcomes-based funding pool for postsecondary institutions. Students volunteered stories about the teachers who have inspired them and urged classmates walking by to support the cause.

"I'm getting a little emotional," one speaker said. "But I would not be who I am today without these people."

Leading the charge was Drew Van’t Land, a graduate student at UK. He worries liberal arts majors and humanities departments are at risk as the state shifts its emphasis to supporting colleges that produce more graduates ready to fill in-demand jobs in fields like manufacturing and engineering.

"I study philosophy, which is clearly at the bottom of the hierarchy in terms of profitability," he said. "I would tend to think it's also one of the most important in terms of the historic function of education as transforming entire people and not simply creating a more educated workforce."

Van't Land told WUKY the spending path charted by lawmakers leaves big question marks for colleges and universities.

"This budget cuts to the university as a whole, threatening entire departments, which would affect graduate students' studies and teaching opportunities," he said. "We're all in this together."

The rallies come less than 24 hours day before legislators return to Frankfort for what's expected to be a turbulent two-day finale to the long 60-day budget session. With momentum growing for another mass protest as Fayette, Jefferson, and other counties call off classes, Gov. Matt Bevin took to their airwaves with more criticism of the teachers' union.

Chatting with Leland Conway on NewsRadio 630 WLAP Thursday morning, the governor labeled the KEA a "fraud" that's "unleashing mayhem."

"The KEA does not represent teachers in this state," Bevin said. "It takes money from teachers in this state. It spends it on things that aren't in the teachers' best interest. It supports candidates who then don't fund the pension system and who take money from it to waste on other things."

The governor went on to argue the organization lacks direction.

"They came and marched and booed and swore at and hissed at everybody that everybody who voted for (the budget and tax bills). Then I vetoed the bills and they say they need to leave school and come here and ask for them to be overturned. They got exactly what they said they wanted," Bevin argued.

The governor also advised against a strike, telling the press this week it would be illegal and irresponsible for teachers to follow the lead of educators in West Virginia and Oklahoma by walking out.

But that hasn’t kept supporters – including the students rallying at UK – from planning for the possibility.